Swimmers’ concerns over water quality amid sewage discharges in River Mersey

Every weekend, dozens of swimmers descend on Wirral’s beaches for early morning swims along the coastline of the peninsula.

Those who have been swimming in Wirral’s waterways for years say they have seen the water quality in the river improve in recent times, pointing to wildlife found in the river, from sharks to dolphins.

However, they feel progress is now stalling with concerns about the level of sewage discharge into the River Mersey with swimmers saying they have seen evidence of it firsthand.

Reporter Ed Barnes goes for a swim in the Mersey. Credit: Chris Sutton

To see what the Mersey is actually like, I joined them on 5 August in New Brighton, reportedly one of the worst affected beaches in the UK, to find out more.

Before we got in the water, an army of people got to work clearing up at least ten buckets of plastic and seaweed covering the edge of the town’s marine lake after recent storms. This litter has built up regularly since the Wild Shore attraction closed.

Swimmers clearing away rubbish and seaweed to make the New Brighton marine lake safer for swimmers. Credit: Ed Barnes

After this came the swim. Going into the water, you wouldn’t be blamed for wanting to keep your mouth firmly shut especially when you look at figures of the amount of sewage being discharged into the river.

Luckily for me, the Mersey smelled fine and no floaters were spotted. The water was a dark brown so no chance of seeing any of the wildlife now found in the river but a refreshingly cool temperature.

As the sun rose around 8am in the morning, the views across to Liverpool were gorgeous so it’s no surprise why people are out almost every morning despite the potential risks.

For those not up for the Mersey, there is the option of New Brighton’s marine lake. Here the water is a much nicer green as it’s washed in by the tides and a lot deeper making it perfect if you want to get some laps in.

Open water swimming, which regulars say has increased in popularity, offers people the chance to get active and socialise with like-minded others while taking in some breathtaking views. Swims are usually followed by breakfast and coffee down on the seafront.

However, data from United Utilities outflow pipes show sewage was pumped into the River Mersey for nearly 25,000 hours in 2022, the equivalent of nearly three years or 15 spills a day.

Taking into account all of the tributaries feeding into the river, this comes to more than 100,000 hours in total in 2022 according to the Rivers Trust. This is the equivalent of nearly 11 and a half years of sewage discharge in just 12 months.

United Utilities said this is to stop sewage backing up into people’s houses when there’s heavy rainfall.

Some of the swimmers said the activity was a great way to socialise. Credit: Lesley Wilson

Lesley Wilson said, “It’s been horrendous sometimes. I prefer the river because it’s more natural and we like going in the sea but there are genuinely times we have gone down there and have turned back because we can see it.

“Even when there hasn’t been any rain beforehand, it’s there. I have been swimming for four or five years but as I said, you can literally see it and it spoils it. It’s not good. This is the Wirral.”

She added, “When you see the plastic that comes through the sewage system, that is when it’s really disgusting.”

Despite recent sewage discharges in Meols and Moreton on July 24, water quality tested by the Environment Agency at bathing waters along north Wirral remains excellent.

The Mersey is not classified as a bathing water meaning it is only managed for the purpose of protecting fish and wildlife, not people. Health risks may be higher than at designated bathing waters with bacteria found in sewage and animal slurry pollution posing the biggest risks.

Other sources of pollution in the river could be agricultural and surface water run-off, private septic tanks, and misconnections according to United Utilities. Cruise Liverpool and StenaLine said sewage is never discharged from their ships into the Mersey and comply with strict regulations.

Heather Ferguson who sometimes swims down the river starting in Egremont, said the swimmers often see debris floating in the river but find water quality is worse after there’s been heavy rainfall

She said, “This is such an amazing resource of water for people to use. They should be protecting it.”

The swimmers are hoping to work with United Utilities to improve the marine lake in New Brighton so they have somewhere safer to swim when there’s a discharge.

Graham Bell said, “We want to stay positive about this. They [United Utilities] ultimately do not want it. I feel positive that they are wanting to do something about it and it seems there is some momentum and change.

“I lived in London for a long time but I was brought up here. I never considered going into the water then. Leasowe Bay, it’s just a fantastic bit of coastline but on the Wirral it’s a more positive story in the fact there are so many people in the water. It’s not all bad.”

Mark Booth, stakeholder engagement lead for Merseyside at United Utilities, said the company is working with community groups and local authorities  “to help make our region stronger, greener and healthier” and “have committed to regular updates to address any concerns.”

He added, “We’re a proud partner in the Mersey Basin Campaign, and since 1991 we have invested around £3bn in our treatment works and sewer systems to play our part in improving water quality throughout the river basin. This investment has had a positive impact, with a wide variety of aquatic life continuing to return to the Mersey.

“We know that there is more to do though. Storm overflows have been designed into sewer systems for more than 100 years to help prevent flooding during heavy rainfall. We agree that this needs to change, and that’s why we are bringing forward £1.5bn of investment to address the new requirements of the Environment Act.”

A dog watches swimmers take a dip in the Mersey. Credit: Chris Sutton

Political pressure is mounting on United Utilities to take action. After a petition was submitted to Wirral Council, environment committee chair Liz Grey called it “absolutely disgusting,” adding, “They’ve not looked after this at all, it’s under their watch.”

Since then, Cllr Grey requested full details from United Utilities and the Environment Agency on sewage discharges on the Wirral and its coastline. A meeting with community groups will follow to “determine the course of action” to lobby the government until discharges are stopped.

Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram pledged in 2021 to make the Mersey discharge free by 2030 “committing the Liverpool City Region to the cleanest river standards.” To make sure it achieves this, a task force has been set up.

A spokesperson for the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority said, “The Mersey has undergone a remarkable regeneration in recent years. Having once been considered biologically dead, it was labelled ‘the best environmental news story in Europe’ earlier this year after sharks and other rare fish were spotted in it.

“Yet, despite the progress that has been made, it is clear that there is still a significant amount of work to do. Last year, the Mersey was ranked the 15th most polluted river in the country – a statistic which is simply unacceptable.”

Image: Some of the swimmers said they hadn’t realised how beautiful the Wirral coastline is until they got in the water. Credit: Chris Shaw

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